The burgeoning importance on cigar tobacco varietals took center stage in a seminar led by Cigar Aficionado senior editor Gregory Mottola in which he introduced the subject as an increasing focus for "the cigar nuts among cigar nuts."
Litto Gomez, of La Flor Dominicana, and Manuel Quesada, of Quesada Cigars, joined the discussion, which Mottola described as having been overlooked until recently. "It wasn't too long ago when varietals were limited," he said. "Companies were not going to bog down their customers with information they weren't interested in."
(Varietals define cigars by the tobacco species from which they are made as opposed to their country of origin.)
Quesada countered that when he broke into the industry they're weren't as many varietals from which to choose and therefore leaf origin was the focus for cigarmakers. "Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, Connecticut: those were the types we were playing with in 1974."
Gomez, who started making cigars in 1994, said that as a new company La Flor Dominicana had limited connections through which to purchase wide varieties of tobacco. Twenty years ago, Cuban-seed Dominican Republic tobacco, Olor and Connecticut-shade wrapper were the main choices. He added that those tobaccos were "the standard of the typical DR cigar of the time."
Both cigarmakers concurred that the cigar boom that followed almost immediately thereafter in 1995 further limited the tobacco choices as the increasing number of manufacturers competed for the limited quantity of leaf.
Quesada said, however, that cigarmakers at that the time could vary their blends by obtaining tobacco from specific regions or even through using leaf from different primings. Primings are defined by the part of the tobacco plant from which the leaf is harvested. Tobacco from the same plant can produce widely different flavor from the top of the stalk to the bottom.
Discussion then settled on Piloto Cubano, a varietal that was relegated to cultivation in Cuba until around 1963. Thereafter, it's been used in many different cigar regions with varying results.
Mottola asked as to how specifically the seeds migrated from Cuba to other parts of the world. Gomez indicated that some came over hidden in his own pocket. Quesada countered jocularly, "You're getting into black ops. You don't want to go that way."
Similarly, Corojo was a varietal developed in Cuba (by the Rodriguez family at the Vuelta Abajo farm for which it is named) but which has spread to other parts of the world. In fact, Corojo has ceased to be cultivated in Cuba because of its low yields and lack of resistance to blue mold.
However, Quesada explained, other countries have had success with the strain by re-engineering it, an option that he said the Cubans did not have the technology to achieve. Even as the Corojo varietal has migrated throughout the tobacco growing regions, it has morphed in flavor profiles because the of the influence of different climatic conditions and soils.
The panelists noted a similar effect with the Sumatra-seed varietal, which has been grown in such countries as Cameroon and Ecuador. "You look at both leaves," said Gomez, " and go, ‘They can't come from the same genetics,' but they do."
In time, said Quesada, varietals came to be designated by the year in which they were developed, for instance Habano 2000. That particular strain also became less important in Cuba because it needed a lot of fermentation and aging. Gomez characterized it as an interesting seed but one that did not fulfill its promise because it was used too soon in the boom years. "Man, I loved to look at those leaves, but they didn't burn."
Corojo and Criollo varietals have also widely become known by years. Criollo interestingly has morphed into a wrapper tobacco, owing to its great texture.
Panelists agreed that developing a new seed is very time-consuming, taking as many as eight years from the start to fruition. Gomez said that cross-pollination can happen by nature or under laboratory conditions. Some cross-pollination happens when tobacco plants bloom unprotected. However, typically new species are developed by covering plants as the flowers appear and introducing plants chosen for specific qualities to each other under protected environments. "You go to the fields and pick the plants you want to flower," explained Quesada. The seeds are tiny, said Gomez, and one plant can yield as many as 4,000 to 5000 of them.
Mottola wondered if the growing importance of varietals has led to cigarmakers claiming they were using, say, a Corojo leaf that wasn't actually that. With a wry smile, Quesada concluded that "poetic license is permitted, and perhaps every so often it's expanded."